By Peter Alegi
Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2010
For many people in the West, soccer and the African continent are inextricably tied. Just the word “Africa” can conjure images of barefoot youth kicking a makeshift ball on dusty African streets or hordes of raucous fans waving flags and blaring vuvuzelas. These images are so engrained in Western minds that it seems hard to imagine a time in Africa before there was soccer. But, indeed, in Peter Alegi’s African Soccerscapes, published by the Ohio University Press, readers are reminded that soccer came to Africa 150 years ago with the Europeans, and that the development of the sport in Africa has been, and still is, complex. Alegi’s thorough, almost painstaking, tale of soccer’s evolution in Africa is anything but one-dimensional. African Soccerscapes describes a continent that was shaped by soccer, while at the same time shaping the sport to its own needs and realities and using the sport to step into the international arena. Alegi presents evidence that African soccer is not only the continent’s most popular and widespread sport, but also a vehicle for nation-building, political transformation, and social change; it is both locally-tied and a vehicle for international interconnectedness.
When European colonizers brought soccer to Africa, both as entertainment and as a civilizing tool, the sport and its companion “games ethic” were often important components of the colonial education. In various countries, African men were granted various levels of involvement—sometimes they were encouraged to play as a way of shaping them into model colonial subjects, sometimes they were barred from the pitch. After all, 1860-1920 was an era of social hierarchies and rampant racism. Regardless of formal structures, African males of all ages learned the rules of the game, played it informally amongst themselves, and appreciated watching others play. To Africans, soccer was one of the attractive aspects of Western culture.
As soccer’s popularity grew across the continent, more clubs and leagues were formed representing various work places, neighborhoods, and racial and ethnic groups. Some teams and leagues continued to be exclusive, while others offered opportunities for intermixing and a reduction in racial tensions. Some clubs even used soccer to resist white colonial rule. For example, Cairo’s Al Ahly “means ‘National’ in Arabic, and its red insignia came to symbolize patriotic resistance to British rule” (22).
At the same time that soccer was being used by Africans to push for racial integration and national independence, African players were also changing the game, and infusing it with a decidedly African flavor. For example, in the African game, magic and religious superstitions were prevalent and important. Teams and players developed their own unique ways of playing, based on their own cultural values, and they didn’t necessarily conform to the European approach to the sport. Alegi writes, “African players and fans self-consciously enjoyed the cleverness, beauty and excitement of feinting and dribbling, delightful moves that elated fans but also captured the cultural importance of creativity, deception, and skill in getting around difficulties and dangerous situations in colonial societies” (34).
Thus, from the introduction of soccer to Africa in the 1860s through the first part of the twentieth century, Africans and Europeans jointly advanced the growth of soccer on the continent, each group using the sport for its own needs and developing it according to its cultural traditions. By the 1940s, soccer had a firm grip on the minds and bodies of the African people. As Africans continued to use soccer to achieve their own goals, the sport became integral in the continent’s various struggles for nationhood.
Particularly during the interwar years, soccer took on more political significance. Alegi explains, “football constructed a fragile sense of nationhood in political entities arbitrarily created by colonial powers and fueled Africa’s broader quest for political liberation” (36). For example, in 1941-1942 a Lagos club toured Nigeria, taking on a local side in front of a huge crowd, then giving a speech critical of colonial rule. In 1957, “an Algerian amateur team participated in a tournament in Moscow. In a public display of emerging nationhood, the Algerian delegation marched in front of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev during the opening ceremony waving a new national flag” (46). When African countries finally gained independence in the 1960s and 1970s, many states celebrated their freedom with soccer festivals. Massive soccer stadiums were early on the agenda of new governments, as national teams and facilities were important symbols of legitimate statehood.
Soccer was also used to fight against apartheid in South Africa. The FIFA suspension of South Africa in 1961 was “the first time that a major international organization had sanctioned Pretoria” (53), showing that soccer was on the forefront of taking a stand against racial injustice. Unfortunately, South Africa was reinstated in 1963, but African unity “won the day” when the South African side was suspended again in 1964 (74). South Africa was not welcomed back into FIFA until 1992 after Mandela was freed from Robben Island and the country underwent serious reforms.
Following independence, African national teams gained legitimacy on the international stage, and, “by the early 1960s, thirty-two of sixty-nine FIFA members were African” (65). African sides worked hard to find success in the global arena during this time, and despite some disappointing World Cup performances, African national teams performed admirably both in the Olympics and in international youth competitions.
Alegi goes on to detail the ups and downs of African teams on the international playing field. In this way, the first part of African Soccerscapes thoroughly explains the history and development of soccer in various nations on the African continent. The second part of the book explores issues facing African soccer in recent times, some of which have been touched upon in other Impumelelo articles.
The first of these issues is the increase in African players’ migration overseas, fueled by the increased respectability of the African game. True, African players have been migrating to Europe since the 1930s, but this movement has boomed in recent years. Alegi writes, “between 1996 and 2000 the number of Africans playing in European professional leagues increased from about 350 to more than 1,000” (79). While admittedly positive for some elite players, the movement of African players to European leagues hurts African soccer and, it has been argued, is a modern form of neocolonialism. In European leagues, African players often deal with issues of wage inequities, discrimination and racism, and stereotypes about their skills and capability at particular positions. Even the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship in Poland has been marred by charges of racism, with some players claiming to have been on the receiving end of racially charged insults, according to the BBC. A few African superstars have had great success and play for top-ranked teams. For most African players hoping to make it big, however, their reality is different; Alegi details “the existence of a soccerscape in which most African players labor in middle- and lower-tier European leagues” (100).
The migration of African players has reshaped the composition of European teams and challenged issues of race and citizenship. At the same time, it has also altered the composition of national teams from Africa, and today, most of the players who represent African national sides are, in reality, based in Europe. This has fueled other changes, like the increased commercialization of the game and the influence of media. European teams have come to replace African teams in the hearts of African soccer fans, and European clubs get disproportionate air time in African media outlets, a phenomenon dubbed “electronic colonialism” by Ohio University sports scholar Gerard Akindes. In sum, “the rapid commercialization of elite football signals the paradox of incorporation into world capitalist sport for African fans, athletes, and organizers, whereby their ‘economic and political dependence on industrialized nations is both their best hope for the future and a leading cause of their underdevelopment’” (111).
Other issues that are briefly touched at the end of Alegi’s book are the rise of soccer academies – primarily designed to hone African youth talent and funnel it overseas – and the expansion of the women’s game which is fighting for its own space in the male-dominated African soccerscape. Finally, Alegi looks at South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup and how this tournament relates to the themes of the rest of the book: “the relationship between sport, race, nationhood, and big business” (131).
Peter Alegi’s book is ambitious in scope—both geographically and chronologically. His story of soccer’s evolution in Africa covers 150 years and dozens of countries. The result is an abundance of clubs and players, administrators and national bodies that are rather hard to keep track of throughout the thread of the narrative. Yet, the beauty of Alegi’s work is that it challenges established notions about African players, fans, organizations, and the sport in general. Soccer is not something that has always existed in Africa, nor has its evolution been linear and simple. A variety of actors both on the continent and in the West have impacted the African game of soccer. Even today, African soccer continues to change in response to globalization, feminism, structural adjustment programs, commercialization, and economic and political realities. So, while the aforementioned images of barefoot youth kicking a makeshift ball on dusty African streets and hordes of raucous fans waving flags and blaring vuvuzelas are not inaccurate, they rest on a dense and complex history and a confluence of experiences that foreshadow a rich future for African soccer.